HomeRecording Review: Straight No Chaser's "Under The Influence"

Docac's picture

I had the pleasure of seeing Straight No Chaser perform live in Atlantic City a few years ago. I was already familiar with their previous a cappella success: Appearances on BOCA 2003, 2002, and 1999, 3 CARA Awards, an appearance on Voices Only 2011, and of course, their YouTube viral success. The concert itself was magnificent. They had all the energy of a collegiate a cappella group, the singing chops of a professional group, and amazing mash-ups before mash-ups were as popular as they are now.

I was really looking forward to reviewing their new album, Under The Influence, which I had heard, through the rumor mill, was going to feature prominent musical superstars. At the height of their success, when Straight No Chaser has become the a cappella household name along with Pentatonix, they play to sold out crowds in some of the biggest cities in the country, and Dreamworks has greenlit a movie biopic about their rise to fame, I expected nothing less from this CD than an outstanding display of a cappella.

What I received was something completely different. I received a CD that was tailored to the masses. Think of it more like Tony Bennett’s Duets album or Carlos Santana’s Supernatural. To me, it seemed like the focus of the album was the enormous amount of star power the production company could muster, rather than a display of Straight No Chaser’s talent. On this eleven-track CD, only three tracks, “Rolling In The Deep,” “Some Nights/We Are Young,” and “Hallelujah,” were without guest singers.

The previously mentioned three tracks are great. “Some Nights/We Are Young” displays my favorite characteristic of Straight No Chaser: their inventive mash-up design. One song flows seamlessly into the next, and the melodies are combined at the end to create a unique and exciting sound. “Hallelujah” is a song I consider to be slightly overdone by the a cappella community, but Straight No Chaser gives it a fresh arrangement here. “Rolling In The Deep” is more of a traditional a cappella arrangement, in that it doesn’t stray too far from the original sound of Adele, but it is solid and fun.

The eight other tracks feature some of the biggest names in music past and present: Sara Bareilles, Phil Collins, Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Jason Mraz, Rob Thomas, Seal, and Dolly Parton. It was interesting to hear these singers lend their voices to an a cappella track, but it was also these tracks that left me disappointed. It was clear, at least to me, that more time was spent refining the lead vocal than polishing the group.

Sara Bareillis’ number, the Jackson 5 classic “I Want You Back,” is poorly arranged. A solid beat of silence accompanies almost every four-measure phrase, killing the forward momentum several times during the song. It left me uneasy to hear every phrase end exactly the same way, as if the group copied and pasted their vocals into the mixer.

I felt the same way about Elton John’s number “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” and Jason Mraz’s number “I Won’t Give Up.” I can’t say the arrangements are bad, because they aren’t. They are just not up to the level of complexity that I hear on a regular basis from other current groups, especially groups featured in the various a cappella compilations. These tracks have very little re-playability.  A couple of tracks did stand out in a more positive way. Rob Thomas’ “This Is How A Heart Breaks,” and Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” were simple arrangements but fun to listen to.

Before you assume that I’m trying to give this album a bad review, take a step back and look at the bigger picture. This is possibly the first, and biggest mainstream a cappella album that has been released in ten or fifteen years, and never has there been an a cappella album with so many big names. Straight No Chaser is poised to do something that every a cappella group in history has always wanted to do: Make a number one album that is 100% a cappella. The star power, the familiar popular songs, and the aggressive marketing push might just be enough to accomplish this goal. And if Straight No Chaser brings a cappella to the masses and inspires even more a cappella singers, then I will be a very happy a cappella fan. In addition, if this is the first a cappella album that someone, totally unfamiliar to a cappella singing, might experience, then it’s a great album to start with.

However, if you are an avid a cappella fan; if you know the difference between Delilah and Musae; if you know who FORK, Postyr Project, and Club For Five are; if you know which scenes in Pitch Perfect are factually accurate and which are not, then this album probably isn’t for you…unless you want to hear Stevie Wonder sing a cappella, which is pretty cool.

on iTunes

About the writer:
Marc Silverberg is a doctoral fellow at Five Towns College. He is the author of “Quest for the A cappella Major,” a blog that discusses the continuing education of contemporary a cappella music and group improvisation. He has presented workshops on vocal improvisation at several CASA.org sponsored festivals, as well as the American Choral Directors Association’s 2013 national convention. His CAL Group, Satellite Lane, was recently crowned the 2013 New York Harmony Sweepstakes “Audience Favorite,” as well as the recipient of “Best Arrangement.” In addition to being an a cappella clinician, conductor, and performer, he also writes original musicals and plays. His original work, He’s Not Himself, premiered Off-Broadway in 2012 as part of the New York Music Theatre Festival. He is a graduate of the University of Delaware and Westminster Choir College.